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Christ Existing as Community: Bonhoeffer’s Ecclesiology

Q: We’re excited to talk with you about your new book which explores Bonhoeffer’s often neglected dissertation, Sanctorum Communio. This book grew out of your own doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame. What initially drew you to Sanctorum Communio as a topic for your research, and why has it remained significant to you over the years?                           

MM: Thank you. I’m excited to talk with you. As you note, my book grew out of a doctoral dissertation. I’d initially planned an overly ambitious project exploring Bonhoeffer’s complex relationship to Hegel and idealism. I had intended to trace this relationship through a number of Bonhoeffer’s major texts. After about a year and a half of work, I realized I was still only working on Sanctorum Communio... Hence the new project became a more modest attempt to simply figure out what Bonhoeffer was doing in this early text. My book then became a further (hopefully clearer) attempt to present Bonhoeffer’s early ecclesiology and make the case for its ongoing significance.

In terms of what drew me to Sanctorum Communio in the first placeand why it has remained so significant... Hmm... Prior to undertaking doctoral studies, I had been involved in an intentional Christian community for several years in New Zealand. I think this involvement continually raised the question of how we understand and attend to Christian communities/ churches as places that witness to God, even as they remain flawed and limited on their own terms. As I try to show in my book, Bonhoeffer provides a rich account of how we might hold these two aspects of the church together. At least on some level, this technical book on Sanctorum Communio is an attempt to wrestle through how we understand the church as the place of God’s revelation, while still recognizing its limits and failures.


Q: It’s now close to ninety years since the original publication of Sanctorum Communio, and yet, it remains one of Bonhoeffer’s most neglected texts. You note how there has only been one other monograph written on Bonhoeffer’s dissertation, despite the fact that Sanctorum Communio is perhaps the closest Bonhoeffer ever came to writing a systematic theology. What originally motivated this neglect, and why do you think it has persisted throughout four generations of Bonhoeffer scholarship?                                                                                                         

MM: I suspect there are a number of reasons behind Sanctorum Communio’s neglect. First, Bonhoeffer wrote Sanctorum Communio early in his life and in a relatively short space of time; it thus lacks the clarity and precision of much of his later writing. Second, many of the figures and sources that he is engaging and invoking are no longer familiar to us. Third, I think there are just ambiguities in the text as it stands. Or at least it is often unclear how some of the claims and discussions are related to others. All of this combined makes Sanctorum Communio a difficult text to read and interpret. I worked on my dissertation and book for around six or seven years, but I’m constantly finding passages in Sanctorum Communio that I’m unsure about.

Here I should also mention here that my book would not have been possible without the careful work of the DBW and DBWE editors and translators (especially Clifford Green and Joachim von Soosten). This often allowed me to identify Bonhoeffer’s sources and to track many of the decisions underlying Sanctorum Communio. My book is also reliant on material from Bonhoeffer’s original dissertation (SC-A), which the editors reincorporated into both DBW 1 and DBWE 1. This original material often displays Bonhoeffer’s thinking in ways that are less evident in the published version of the dissertation (SC-B).

You mention a passing comment that I make in my book about Sanctorum Communio being the ‘closest Bonhoeffer ever came to writing a systematic theology.’ I was making a point that some of Bonhoeffer’s readers have focused on his Christology without always sufficiently attending to how this relates to and is coordinated with other aspects of his theology. And I suggested that attending to Sanctorum Communio may help a little to mitigate this tendency (i.e. in that it has distinct but related treatments of creation, sin, the church, eschatology, etc.).


Q: You begin your book by outlining two major intellectual influences on Bonhoeffer’s early theology – Karl Barth and Ernst Troeltsch. How do Barth and Troeltsch inform Bonhoeffer’s argument in Sanctorum Communio? Perhaps more importantly, how does Bonhoeffer move beyond these two thinkers and what is entailed in the ‘third standpoint’ he lays out in Sanctorum Communio?

MM: My opening chapter frames Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation by showing how he is broadly responding to these two giants and the theological options they represent. To be clear, Bonhoeffer himself doesn’t always have Troeltsch and Barth in view (and refers to them only occasionally in Sanctorum Communio). But my assumption is that these figures would be more familiar to contemporary readers. Accordingly, I contrast Bonhoeffer’s own pursuit of an ecclesial approach to theology (his ‘third standpoint’) with both Troeltsch’s commitment to a thoroughgoing historicism and Barth’s early dialectical theology. For Bonhoeffer, the work of theology always proceeds from the concrete church: ‘the empirical church is the presupposition for theology’, as he puts it in some later lectures.Moreover, I suggest how this ecclesial turn allows him to still incorporate important elements of both Troeltsch’s and Barth’s approaches, albeit while reframing them.


Q: Woven like a melody line throughout your book is the claim that Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is organized around a theological dialectic of creation, sin, and reconciliation. Can you explain and how this dialectic operates and the ways it is so central to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the church?

MM: In many ways this ‘theological dialectic’ is at the heart of my reading of Sanctorum Communio. It is perhaps easiest to try to explain it using Bonhoeffer’s own language:

The concept of Christian community proves to be defined by an inner history. It cannot be understood “in itself”, but only in a historical dialectic. The concept is split within itself; its inner history can be seen in the concepts of primal state, sin, and revelation....’

My book tries to take this claim seriously, which means reading Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology or concept of church by continually attending to its ‘inner history’ or ‘split’. Following Bonhoeffer, this involves developing robust accounts or doctrines of the primal state (i.e. creation), the state of sin, and reconciliation in Christ.  This is necessary for explicating what the church concretely is. Any attempt to understand the church apart from this dialectic and these states, for Bonhoeffer, remains abstract or ‘idealist’.


Q: Bonhoeffer develops his account of the church in Sanctorum Communio through a complex theological engagement with social theory. In your book you argue that Bonhoeffer’s use of social theory tends to be misinterpreted. How does Bonhoeffer uniquely use social theory in his dissertation? Moreover, how is this use governed by the dialectic of creation, sin, and reconciliation?

MM: Most scholars have been critical of Bonhoeffer’s engagement with social theory in the early chapters of Sanctorum Communio. In an early and influential essay, for example, Peter Berger criticized Bonhoeffer’s decision to draw on formal sociology (i.e. Simmel, et al.) rather than historical sociology (i.e. Weber, et al). According to Berger, this decision reflected Bonhoeffer’s own largely uncritical, and in hindsight limited, preference for the prevalentschool of his time. On the one hand, I try to show that there are theological commitments underlying Bonhoeffer’s preference for formal sociology. On the other hand, I suggest that he is not simply adopting and using insights and concepts from formal sociology; rather, he is reworking them on the basis of deeper theological commitments.

As you note, I suggest that he does this by engaging social theory and formal sociology on the basis of his dialectic of creation, sin and reconciliation. Here is perhaps helpful to take another quote from Sanctorum Communio:  ‘[T]he concepts of person and community... are understood only within an intrinsically broken history, as conveyed in the concepts of primal state, sin, and reconciliation.’ Taking my cue from quotes like this one, I argue that Bonhoeffer does not have stable or univocal concepts of ‘person’ or ‘community’ running throughout Sanctorum Communio. Rather, he is constantly reworking and rethinking such social-philosophical concepts in and across his treatments of creation, sin, and reconciliation.

Ultimately, I suggest (in my conclusion) that this results in a theological engagement with social theory that is both more appreciative and more critical than that of someone like John Milbank.


Q: One of the more well know aspects of Sanctorum Communio is Bonhoeffer’s development of a Christian concept of person as an alternative to idealism’s reasoning subject. In fact, many scholars read this concept as foundational to the dissertation, and central to much of Bonhoeffer’s later work. However, you argue that Bonhoeffer’s concept of person has a more limited role in Sanctorum Communio than previously assumed. What specific role does this concept have in Sanctorum Communio

MM: That’s right. I argue that Bonhoeffer’s ‘Christian concept of the person’ in the second chapter of Sanctorum Communio is not really the ‘foundation’ for the whole dissertation. Rather, my claim is that Bonhoeffer is using this concept to present the real situation and standing of the human being before God after the fall. In other words, what he calls ‘the Christian concept of person’ is tied closely to how God encounters and claims the human being in her postlapsarian situation. And this means this concept has a more delimited and specific (albeit still crucial) role in his early theology than some others have suggested.

What is at stake with this? Those who have read this concept or the second chapter of Sanctorum Communio as a foundation have tended to suggest that he is developing a ‘relational anthropology’ or ‘concept of person’. While this is certainly true, my concern is that it just doesn’t recognize how much this anthropology is tied to the wider theology and structure of Bonhoeffer’s dissertation. My own interest is thus in showing how this concept is just one part of a richer and more complex dogmatic and ecclesial theology.


Q: One longstanding criticism of Sanctorum Communio has been that it is insufficiently Christological. Scholars have argued that Bonhoeffer collapses Christ into the existing church in ways that place the church beyond criticism. What do you make of this criticism?

MM: In one of my chapters I try to demonstrate that Bonhoeffer has a more robust and viable Christology in Sanctorum Communio than many readers have recognized. Even while Bonhoeffer closely identifies the Christ with the existing church (i.e. in formulations such as ‘Christ existing as community’), he is still careful to insist that Christ remains ‘Lord of the church-community.’ In other words, he is careful never to ‘completely identify’ Christ with the church, in the way that some critics have suggested. In particular, I indicate that he maintains this position through a careful separation of the work of Christ (establishing) and of the Holy Spirit (actualizing) with respect to the church.

Furthermore, I suggest that two of Bonhoeffer’s well-known theological formulations—‘Christ existing as community’ and ‘vicarious representative action’—are both crucial to how he understands the relationship between Christ and the concrete church. 


Q: In Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer presents two of his more well-known theological formulations: ‘vicarious representative action’ (Stellvertretung) and ‘Christ existing as church-community’ (Christus als Gemeinde existierend). How does Bonhoeffer draw upon (his Christian reworking) of social theory to develop these terms?

MM: One of my claims in this book is that many scholars read and treat these formulations in isolation from the wider structure and theology of Sanctorum Communio. By contrast, I again try and demonstrate how these formulations are embedded in, and thus fully explicable only in terms of, a wider structure and argument. For example, Bonhoeffer himself explains ‘Christ existing as community’ using the concept of ‘collective person’: ‘The church community as a collective personality . . . can be called Christ,’ as he puts it. This means that properly understanding this formulation requires attending to the different ways that Bonhoeffer uses the concept of collective person in earlier parts of Sanctorum Communio. More specifically, it requires attending to how ‘Christ as collective person’ differs both from collective persons in the primal state and from the collective person of Adam (i.e. humanity after the fall). The concise formulation ‘Christ existing as community’ has all of this in play.


Q: You make it clear in the book that you are assessing Sanctorum Communioon its own terms and, as such, give little attention to the development of Bonhoeffer’s theology. That said, if you had to write sequel to your book where would you begin? In other words, what are some of the ways that Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology develops or transforms over time? Is the dialectic you discern in Sanctorum Communio present in Bonhoeffer’s later thought as well?

MM: Ha! It has just taken me around six or seven years to write a book about a dissertation that Bonhoeffer himself wrote in the space of months. So I guess one option for my sequel(s) would be just to continue working slowly through his corpus. This would mean that I should have a book on Act and Being finished by around 2025, and I might just make it to Creation and Fall by the time I am due to retire.

In terms of Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology, I tend to read Sanctorum Communio as basically consistent with Bonhoeffer’s later discussions of the church. I recently taught Life Together in an undergraduate class, and was continually struck by how many of the basic claims and insights were already present in Sanctorum Communio.

In terms of what I have called the ‘theological dialectic’ (i.e. creation, sin, reconciliation), this exact language doesn’t really appear after Sanctorum Communio. Rather, Bonhoeffer uses different language to make the same basic point. In Act and Being, he presents the inner dialectic or fragmentation of the church using the language of ‘being in Christ’ and ‘being in Adam’. And in Ethics,he writes of the church as ‘the ‘human being who has become human, has been judged, and has been awakened to new life in Christ.’ If I were to write a sequel, then, I would hope to demonstrate how this same dialectic or pattern remains at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s theology and ecclesiology.


Q: Toward the end of the book you discuss the ongoing significance Sanctorum Communiohas for contemporary debates in theology. You note that Bonhoeffer’s approach in Sanctorum Communio comes into proximity to scholars who advocate for and practice a type of theological ethnography. At first blush this makes a lot of sense, considering Bonhoeffer’s own lived experience was so central to his theological work. However, you have some concerns about this approach to ecclesial theology. How would you suggest scholars rework concepts like ethnography in order to include them in theological analysis?

MM: In the conclusion of my book, I briefly compare Bonhoeffer’s approach to the church with four more recent theological approaches: those of Stanley Hauerwas, John Webster, John Milbank, and the ecclesiology and ethnography movement. This last movement encompasses a range of scholars who have been advocating for ethnographic practices as a way of developing more concrete ecclesiologies. While I am deeply sympathetic to this movement, I suggest that some of these scholars proceed in ways that can suggest that ethnographic practices per se provide access to the concrete church. Following Bonhoeffer, a more genuinely theological (and thus more concrete) approach requires attending to the church in its concrete form as simultaneously created, sinful, and reconciled in Christ. I thus briefly speculate that a theological use of ethnography needs to entail a more thorough reworking (and internal fragmentation) of ethnographic practices and description.

What would this look like on the ground? I guess the challenge would be to try to develop complex descriptions of concrete communities that attend to their inner fragmentation and contradictions. How could we attend to and describe a particular community as ordinary, even as dysfunctional and sinful, and yet as simultaneously a place of God’s presence and reconciliation? While I didn’t refer to him in my book, I have found Ted Smith’s work in The New Measures and Weird John Brown useful for thinking along these lines. And I’ve also been inspired by Ross Halbach’s use of Bonhoeffer to think about concrete complexities of race and whiteness in North American congregations. As Halbach frames his study, ‘how does the triune God speak through a historical community that is sinful, and specifically inundated with the modern racial distortions of whiteness, and how does God speak through this community without capitulating to its sinful enclosures?’


Q: What are you working on now that Christ Existing as Community has been published?                      

MM: My main focus at the moment is on completing the Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I am co-editing with my colleague Phil Ziegler. We have collected together some excellent essays by established and emerging scholars, and we hope to be able to make these available to readers very soon.

I’ve also begun doing some research and writing in the area of ageing and ethics. In particular, I’m interested in how theology and phenomenology can help us to better attend to lived-experiences and the messiness of the final stages of life, and in how this in turn might help us to reframe some ways we think and talk about bioethics. I’ve found myself drawing on Bonhoeffer a little for this work, as well as on Barth, Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and some more recent scholars.

Thank you for reading my book so carefully and for putting together such focused and insightful questions.


Michael Mawson is a senior lecturer in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen.

His new book, Christ Existing as Community: Bonhoeffer’s Ecclesiology is available for purchase at the following websites:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Christ-Existing-Community-Bonhoeffers-Ecclesiology/dp/019882646X

Oxford University Press: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/christ-existing-as-community-9780198826460?cc=us&lang=en&




Join us for Project Bonhoeffer’s 2018 Conference - for all seeking to understand how Christianity can shape social and political change in today’s world.


Dr Jennifer McBride of McCormick Theological Seminary Chicago and current President of the International Bonhoeffer Society

A leading authority on Bonhoeffer’s thinking, Professor McBride also has a deep commitment to his legacy. She invites all of us to rethink, as he did, what the Gospel is all about and how today’s disciples can bring together theological reflection and public engagement to address contemporary issues and conflicts by helping to heal the wounds of all who suffer poverty, pain and injustice; standing in solidarity with all who society scapegoats, despises and rejects; so building Christ’s kingdom of justice, mercy and peace in the here-and-now.

Professor McBride is author of The Church for the World: a Theology of Public Witness (2011) and Radical Discipleship: a Liturgical Politics of the Gospel (2017).

David Peterson of Unity in Poverty Action and St George’s Crypt, Leeds.

Known in Leeds for his ‘hands-on’ engagement in action to ways in which Christians and others can care for, support and empower those in the community who are rejected and misunderstood, hungry, homeless and helpless, Dave will speak about his personal experiences in putting his Christian faith into action.


The conference will take place at St George's Conference Centre in Leeds on Satruday Octoebr 27.


For Tickets and more information please visit the following link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/faith-in-political-action-today-tickets-49767518989

For more on Project Bonhoeffer visit thier website at: https://www.projectbonhoeffer.org.uk

The Fourth International Barth Symposium

The organizers of the Fourth International Karl Barth Symposium invite proposals for presentations. The symposium will take place at the Johannes a Lasco Library in Emden from May 9th to 12th, 2019.

The theme of the conference is:

“God-Shattered – God-Certain: The Relevance of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God.” “Gotteserschütterung – Gottesgewissheit: Die Relevanz der Gotteslehre Karl Barths

This symposium will deal with Karl Barth’s doctrine of God. It is intended to aid our understanding and interpretation of Barth’s texts, but we also hope to discuss fruitful connections and the potential wider repercussions of his ideas. The overall goal is to ask for the present and future relevance of

Barth’s doctrine of God.

In addition to plenary lectures, there will be presentation panels in the afternoon. We are seeking proposals for short presentations (30 minutes max) as part of these panels.

Presentation panels will be devoted to these topics:

  1. Barth’s TheologicalRealism

(e.g., the question of analogy, gender issues, God and the gods, Barth’s notion of the lordless powers)

  1. Contextual Talk about God inProclamation

(e.g., Barth’s time in Safenwil, the churches and the Nazi state, Barth’s prison sermons)

  1. Barth’s Doctrine of God and “Postsecular”Society

(e.g., atheism, multi-religious society, Barth and Islam, subjectivity theory, Barth and Plantinga)

  1. Barth’s Doctrine of God andEthics

(e.g., the question of peace, Barth and Hauerwas, the foundations of ethics in the doctrine of God, the crisis of democracy)

We invite proposals dealing with these or similar subtopics. Junior scholars such as doctoral students are especially encouraged to submit proposals.

Proposals for presentations should not exceed 500 words. Besides the proposed topic, main arguments, and conclusions, please include your professional position, your most important relevant publication, and area(s) of academic work. Presentations can be delivered in English or German, but the conference will be held mainly in German.

Proposals should be submitted no later than July 1, 2018.

Please send your text to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.Prof. Georg Plasger can also be reached at this email address with any further questions. A small committee will select the most suitable submissions and inform applicants in August 2018. Successful applicants will receive free registration, meals, lodging, and travel costs.

Victoria J. Barnett is a scholar who has served as a general editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the English translation series of the theologian’s complete works, published by Fortress Press. She is the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity during the Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1999). 

You’ve written the introduction to a new edition of Bonhoeffer’s essay, After Ten Years. In the past that essay has usually appeared as a preface of sorts to Letters and Papers from Prison. Why a new edition of that particular essay now?

This is my favorite Bonhoeffer text, and I’ve thought for several years that it deserved to be published as a stand-alone edition. It’s so eloquent and powerful. As I wrote in my introduction, it is timeless—which is interesting, because it has such a concrete historical context. I don’t think it’s accidental many of the most-quoted passages from Bonhoeffer are from this essay. But to your question, why now?: We’re living in a time where many of us are wrestling collectively and individually with issues of conscience and our responsibilities as people of faith and as citizens. This essay goes to the heart of those issues.

After Ten YearsBonhoeffer addresses a wide range of issues in After Ten Years including the failure of German institutions, moral passivity and civic cowardice on the part of its citizens, the susceptibility of Germans to the influences of propaganda and group think, and more. Have you underlined a passage in the essay that you think is particularly worth highlighting? If you have, why does it catch your attention?

My favorite sentence in the essay comes from the section on “Some statements of faith on God’s action in history”: “I believe that our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds.”

It’s simultaneously a reminder for humility and against hopelessness—a reminder that while we may fall short and we don’t know what the outcome of our actions will be, that’s no reason to lose hope and it’s certainly no reason not to act. That perspective—don’t lose hope, take responsibility for whatever you can do, and don’t become paralyzed by doubt or your own failings—is the subtext of so much of this essay. Many other passages touch on it—think of the section “Are we still of any use?” It’s the aspect of the essay that moves me the most personally.

Bonhoeffer’s emotions seem unusually close to the surface in After Ten Years, even more so than in the letters he writes from prison. Do we learn anything about Bonhoeffer from this brief essay?  

This kind of relates to what I was just talking about. I wouldn’t quite describe this essay as “whistling in the dark,” but he wrote it at a very uncertain time, and I get the sense that he was trying to clarify and strengthen his own resolve. The day-to-day pressures of those years must have taken their toll. In my own research I’ve found several accounts by people who knew Bonhoeffer who describe a certain emotional fragility (and of course Bonhoeffer himself wrote about his struggles with depression). I personally believe that’s one reason for his frequent trips out of Nazi Germany; he just had to get out and breathe free air for a little while. By late 1942 things were closing in—everywhere, not just in Bonhoeffer’s circles. Both for the victims of National Socialism and those who opposed it, the atmosphere in Berlin was grim on so many levels.

In my own research I’ve found several accounts by people who knew Bonhoeffer who describe a certain emotional fragility.

I’ll add another interesting note: last fall I happened to meet a US physician who had a long friendship with Eberhard Bethge (Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer) and his wife Renate. This doctor shared with me an interview he did with Bethge, and I learned for the first time that Bonhoeffer’s father Karl read this letter to the entire family at Christmas 1942. That was news to me. After Ten Years has been understood as a confidential letter to his closest friends in the conspiracy, although Bethge does note in his biography that Bonhoeffer gave a copy to his father. It’s interesting if Bonhoeffer’s father shared this with the family—and this was an extraordinarily close family—and that makes me think more about the emotional undertone you mention.

I would add that Bonhoeffer wrote this between November 1942, when Maria von Wedemeyer’s family had asked him not to write her, and January 13, 1943, when she wrote to say that she would marry him. While there’s been a lot of speculation about their relationship, his January 17 response to her letter and the subsequent love letters between them do indicate some genuine emotional attachment—it’s as if their relationship opens a new door for him and he begins to envision a personal future in a way that he hadn’t before. So I agree with you; I think there’s a lot going on here.

In your introduction to the new edition you warn readers about the hazards of drawing simplistic historical analogies in general, and about the period of National Socialism in particular. Yet, aspects of political life in Bonhoeffer’s Germany seem to help many to gain insight into our own political situation, and, as you have said, you think a new edition of the work is timely. Are you, nevertheless, resistant to pointing to Bonhoeffer and his times as a useful historical analogue to our own? If so, why?

I think Bonhoeffer’s reflections in this essay hold many insights for us today, but I stumble over the phrase “useful historical analogue.” I don’t mean at all to minimize the significance of the xenophobia, hatred, and nationalism that we’re seeing in some parts of our society (and internationally as well), and threats to civil liberties and the free press should be taken very seriously. There are clearly people in our country and elsewhere today who draw inspiration from the history of Nazi Germany and that’s extremely disturbing. Frankly, however, I think we’re wrestling more with the demons of our own history than with German ones, and any response or solution we come up with has to address those demons.

My biggest concern is that a focus on comparisons to Nazi Germany may deflect our attention from the very American roots of much of what we’re seeing.

The level on which historical analogies may be most useful is at the level of ordinary human behavior—and of course, to some extent that’s what Bonhoeffer is writing about in After Ten Years.The level on which historical analogies may be most useful is at the level of ordinary human behavior—and of course, to some extent that’s what Bonhoeffer is writing about in After Ten Years. I wrote a book several years ago about the issue of “bystanders,” in which I argued that the political and social dynamics by which certain groups are “otherized,” for example, or the processes by which ordinary people start out as “bystanders” but end up becoming complicit in evil, or the processes by which we rationalize such complicity, or the processes by which bureaucrats and institutions get co-opted, tend to be very similar, whatever the political circumstances.

My biggest concern is that a focus on comparisons to Nazi Germany may deflect our attention from the very American roots of much of what we’re seeing. This is hardly the first time in US history when racism, xenophobia, isolationism, nativism, and nationalism became powerful political forces. The Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence during the 1920s, and the antisemitism, racism, and anti-Catholicism of that era led to a dramatic rise in hate groups during the 1930s. Last summer Neo-Nazis and white supremacists convened in Charlottesville because of the city of Charlottesville voted to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee—a Confederate monument that was commissioned—like many Confederate monuments—during the Jim Crow era (the Lee statue was commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924).

In addition to our ongoing struggles with racism and the legacy of slavery, we’re wrestling with other issues, like deeply clashing philosophies about centralized government vs. states’ rights, about regulation of corporations and businesses, about distribution of wealth. All that sounds very wonkish but these things have consequences not only politically but for our values as a civil society. Should the federal government be run like a corporation, and what does that mean for the ideals of public service or foreign policy? Should we privatize and outsource certain agencies (as has already happened with much of our prison system)? Do we want to live in a society where the rights of women, or immigrants, or gay or transgender individuals, or the poor, vary from state to state? Do we believe in having some kind of social safety net? Do we believe in having free access to information?  All those things are on the table.

We could also draw on the long and rich tradition in our history of resistance by people like Elizabeth Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, etc.—people who didn’t just fight against injustice but articulated a new language and vision for what our society can be.

The key is to bring Bonhoeffer’s insights into conversation with those voices in US history who have spoken to similar issues in our context.

So I think the key here is not to impose Nazi Germany as the template by which we measure what’s happening, but to bring Bonhoeffer’s insights into conversation with those voices in US history who have spoken to similar issues in our context. That’s why at the end of my introductory essay for this edition of After Ten Years I mention Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Abraham Heschel’s No Religion is an Island. Those texts, like Bonhoeffer’s essay, acknowledge the reality of social and political evil but in a provocative and challenging way that appeals to our better selves.

Sorry this has turned into such a long answer, but as you can see I think a lot about these things.

As an editor of the English translation of Bonhoeffer’s complete works, the editor and reviser of the first unabridged English edition of Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography of Bonhoeffer, a historian of the German church under National Socialism, and as a Bonhoeffer scholar in your own right, you must have read nearly every known word the man wrote. Can you point to some ways that this prolonged and detailed exposure to Bonhoeffer has affected you?

This certainly wasn’t planned! When I wrote my first book on the Confessing Church I deliberately focused on the “non-Bonhoeffers” because I felt that there was already enough literature on Bonhoeffer. Oh, well.

We tend to read him only as a theologian, but like all of us, he was a complex person who was shaped by many factors.

I’d say that for all the differences between his world and perspective and my own, I’ve come to see him as a reliably thoughtful conversation partner, especially with regard to how we Christians think about our role as citizens. We tend to read him only as a theologian, but like all of us, he was a complex person who was shaped by many factors, one of which was the humanism and sense of public responsibility that characterized much of his family, and that resonates with me. This may sound odd, but I also feel almost a tenderness about the poignancy of this young man and his brief life.

There were moments throughout the Bonhoeffer project, often in one of his letters, when I would suddenly get a deeper glimpse of the person and that was always moving. When you spend years looking at the close-up, sometimes daily, record of someone’s life, you’re reminded constantly how short our life on this earth is, and how little control we have over much of what happens to us.

Just as various divergent Christian theological camps claim Reinhold Niebuhr as their own—there’s the conservative Niebuhr and the liberal Niebuhr—there is now a struggle over Bonhoeffer. Is he to be seen through the lens of evangelical Christianity in the US, or is he more appropriately placed in the tradition of progressive Christianity? What do you make of this tug of war?

First, I think this is a very US-specific phenomenon, and it’s been part of the Bonhoeffer story from the beginning. When Eberhard Bethge arrived at Harvard in 1958 to work on the biography, he commented that “everyone here has his own Bonhoeffer.” That’s partly due to the drama of Bonhoeffer’s life story and partly due to his ability to write about the meaning and challenges of Christian faith in the modern world in a language that speaks to Christians, whether they are evangelicals or liberal mainline Protestants. So everyone likes to claim him but they take the story and his theological significance in different directions.

Politically, his attitudes are pretty clear. He was very outspoken during his time in the US about our problems with racism and horrified by the treatment of African Americans, including the lynchings of that era. In February 1933 when the new Nazi government started targeting its political opponents he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr that Germany needed a Civil Liberties Union. He urged his church to speak out for those who were targeted and powerless. He offered an immediate and unambiguous critique of the Christian nationalism that was embraced by so many German Protestants.

Theologically, he’s complex and doesn’t fit neatly on one side or the other of our American religio-culture wars.

Theologically, he’s complex and doesn’t fit neatly on one side or the other of our American religio-culture wars. There are certain texts that resonate more for mainline Protestants and others that resonate deeply among evangelicals. Bonhoeffer writes about the daily practices of faith, and he also writes about the centrality of social justice as a core part of Christian discipleship. But you know, all these texts were written by the same man, and I wonder whether we might be able to have a different kind of conversation about Bonhoeffer if we acknowledged that and tried to read him on his terms, not ours. The fact that Bonhoeffer’s words resonate with so many people from very different Christian backgrounds should tell us something.

One of the biggest problems however is the hagiography. There’s a popular picture of Bonhoeffer as the leader of the Confessing Church, the one person who spoke out consistently against the persecution of the Jews, and the primary example of Christian witness against National Socialism—a general tendency to portray Bonhoeffer as the central figure in a clear-cut tale of good against evil. In fact, he was on the margins of his church and often struggled with what he should do. There are other Confessing Church figures whose record of resistance, especially during the 1930s, is much clearer than his. The wartime resistance circles in which he moved were a very complicated group. That’s one reason why I tried to give some critical historical details in my introduction to After Ten Years, including the fact that the German resistance included some people who would have been tried for war crimes had they survived. These weren’t all heroic figures who rose up against a system they had always hated; many of the high-ranking generals and bureaucrats who were in a position to overthrow the regime had been very much a part of the Nazi system.

Is there anything important, in your view, that biographers and commentators on Bonhoeffer are missing?

I think we need to recover the person behind the hagiography.

I think we need to recover the person behind the hagiography. We’ve been sifting and re-sifting the same material for decades now, and the time has come to step outside the material in the Bonhoeffer Works—that is, outside the Bethge narrative—if we really want to discover something new. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not going to get new biographical or historical insights into Bonhoeffer unless we do that, and I suspect that such research might also give us some new insights into his theology.

There’s now this vast literature about Nazi Germany, the role of the churches, the Holocaust, and many fascinating but overlooked contemporaries of Bonhoeffer. Exploring Bonhoeffer’s life through that broader lens might give us some new information, and it could also be a corrective to some of the things we’ve gotten wrong. As full disclosure, I should add that I’m writing a new book on Bonhoeffer in which I’m attempting to explore his significance from that outside perspective. And I’ve come across quite a bit of new material, some of which has surprised me and is leading me to rethink my own assumptions. So I guess I’m not done yet.

This article was originally pubished by Bearings Online and is reprinted here with permission. 

It is to the great credit of the Church of England that it has decided to publish in full the review by Lord Carlile into its procedures dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop George Bell. The Church cannot be accused of lack of transparency here! At the same time, the public reactions of the church leadership to the review will merit scrutiny. So far, the statements published today (15 December) come under the category of recognising that while “acting in good faith”, they should have done better and that lessons will be learnt. That is verging on blandness. In fact Lord Carlile’s review contains a damning catalogue of flawed practices and misjudgements which should be specifically addressed in the interests of integrity.

On Good Friday 2016, regarding the Bell case the archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby stated on BBC Radio Kent: “On the balance of probability, at this distance, it seemed clear to us after very thorough investigation that that was correct and so we paid compensation and gave a profound and deeply felt apology.” It is now patently clear from Lord Carlile’s report that, as the George Bell Group has always maintained, there was no “very thorough investigation” at all. This should now be clearly acknowledged by the church leadership.

Lord Carlile emphasises that it was not in his brief make a judgment on the truth or otherwise of the allegations against George Bell, but it is quite clear from his review that on several counts Bell’s name has suffered a grave miscarriage of justice. Child sexual abuse is a deeply serious matter, and one can only applaud the much more rigorous attention that safeguarding is now receiving in church circles. But no less important is the need to search for the truth in any such case, however difficult it may prove to be. Those of us who have been  concerned for the reputation of George Bell have not been making any special pleading on his behalf: one would hope that, in the best traditions of British justice, all accused and all claimants will be treated fairly regardless of who they are. But in Bell’s case it is sadly ironic that one who fought so tirelessly for victims of injustice while he was alive, should himself have been denied justice after his death.

Much has been made of the harm this case has brought to the Church of England. But George Bell was not just an outstanding Anglican. He is acknowledged and admired worldwide and in all Christian traditions as one of the greatest figures in the modern ecumenical movement. There are many beyond these shores and beyond the Anglican Communion who will welcome Lord Carlile’s findings, and who will now want to share in the responsibility of continuing to honour him, learn from him and to sing with as great a vigour as ever his hymn “Christ is the King! O friends rejoice”.

Keith Clements



The George Bell Group, together with admirers of the Bishop worldwide, heartily welcomes Lord Carlile’s independent review of the process which led to the statement by the Church in October 2015 painting Bell as a paedophile. Lord Carlile deserves congratulations for producing such a comprehensive and authoritative report.

In his response to the report Archbishop Welby has chosen to emphasise that Lord Carlile has not sought to say whether George Bell was in fact responsible for the alleged assaults. That is not surprising, it was no part of Lord Carlile’s terms of reference from the Church to say whether Bell was innocent or not. But his devastating criticism of the Church’s process shows that Archbishop Welby was wrong in 2016 when he described the investigation as ‘very thorough’ and the finding of abuse as clearly correct on the balance of probabilities. A close reading of the detail of Lord Carlile’s report can only lead to the conclusion that he has thoroughly vindicated the reputation of man revered for his integrity across the Christian Church.

It is no wonder that the Church’s investigation has been compared by Lord Carlile tothe discredited police investigation of Lords Brittan and Bramall. The Safeguarding Group appear to have gone about their work looking for reason to doubt the veracity of the complainant. A proper investigation would have looked to see whether they could find independent corroboration of the complaint. That Bishop Bell had been dead for over half a century did not justify depriving him of the presumption of innocence or of due process. As Sir Richard Henriques pointed out in his report for the Metropolitan Police on historic sex offence investigations, the policy of believing victims shifts the burden of proof onto the suspect and ‘has and will generate miscarriages of justice on a considerable scale’.

The misconceived approach of the Safeguarding Group, described by Lord Carlile as neither fair nor equitable, was aggravated by the failure of their investigation to reveal easily discoverable evidence:


·         They failed to speak to Bell’s domestic chaplain during two of the four relevant years, who lived with the Bells in the Bishop’s Palace. He could have explained to them precisely why the complainant’s account did not add up;


·         Nor did they speak to Bell’s biographer, the historian Professor Andrew Chandler, who has studied the layout of the Bishop’s Palace at the relevant time;


·         They did not interview former choristers of Chichester Cathedral who might be thought to have been aware if Bell had been a paedophile. Eleven of them wrote to the Times complaining that the Bishop had been smeared to suit a public relations need.


Lord Carlile’s report has now left the Church with many searching questions, including how best to remedy the many defects in the current Practice Guidance so as to ensure that such an injustice can never recur. But most important of all, the time has now come for the Church of England to redress, without hesitation or qualification, the immense damage done to the fine reputation of a man who served it for so long and with such courage and devotion. Those institutions which summarily removed Bell’s name from their titles should now fully restore it.

Archbishop Welby, who has said in his response to Lord Carlile that he realises that ‘a significant cloud’ is left over Bell’s name, should join with the Bishop of Chichester in removing that cloud. The Church deprived the Bishop of due process, they should not deprive him of the presumption of innocence. There is not just no fire, there is no smoke. We share Lord Carlile’s disappointment that the Church has rejected the protection of innocence as a clear and general principle.

As Bishop Bell said in a broadcast to the German people in December 1945, now engraved in the Bell Chapel at Christ Church in Oxford: ‘Without repentance and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.’